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Prevent Water Pollution Using Grass and Wildflower Buffer Strips

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There’s nothing quite like a water feature to add visual appeal, charm, and interest to a landscape. Whether it’s a stream, pond, river, or lake, the presence of water seems to add a calming, relaxing effect to all those who fall under its spell. Some of the greatest memories of my childhood include playing in and around a small canal that ran through our property. Originating from a mountain spring several miles away, this canal played an important role in providing my rural farming community with irrigation water for dozens of fields, yards, and pastures as it made its way down into the valley. Eventually, this small canal merged with other canals which later merged into the Bear River. After reaching the Bear River, the water from this small backyard canal would snake through hundreds of acres of protected wetland habitat until reaching the Great Salt Lake almost 100 miles away. As a child, I was oblivious to the complexity of watershed science and water cycles. Once I threw something into that canal, in my young mind it was gone forever. Now that I have grown up and have started to understand the big picture, I realize the water cycle isn’t that simple. 

The Water Cycle

Water is perhaps the most precious resource we rely on. The human body is around 60% water, and every living thing on earth requires it. It’s remarkable how it travels, not only on the surface of the earth, but under the surface as well. As humans we’re only able to perceive just a glimpse of this precious liquid in the course of its travels. Rarely do we notice our own individual impact on the water cycle, and with child-like naivety we add things to our water, believing once we can’t see it anymore it’s gone.nobufferstripSometimes we don’t even realize how our actions are connected to the water cycle. What we do notice is when problems arise in this cycle, such as aquatic wildlife die-off, visible pollution buildup, wetland destruction, algae blooms, groundwater contamination, toxins in our drinking water, and declining human health. The choices we make as individual homeowners, businesses, and golf course superintendents will either help or hurt not only our local water supplies, but the water supplies found hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away. 

The Benefits of Buffer Strips

One simple practice to help prevent water pollution can be found in the design and application of buffer strips. A buffer strip is an area of land located along the edge of the water feature that contains shrubs, grasses, forbs, and other plants. These plants and their roots act as filters that help stop common pollutants from entering the water supply, both above ground and below ground. Buffer strips help reduce soil erosion, trap and filter pollutants from fertilizers and pesticides, provide shade to cool the water, provide habitat for wildlife, provide food sources for aquatic life, and reduces the time and labor associated with lawn and weed maintenance along sloped banks. 

Buffer Strips Can Help Prevent or Eliminate Algae Blooms

Not only do buffer strips prevent problems, but they can also help correct current problems. Algae blooms, for example, are one of the most common issues associated with pond maintenance and are caused by the presence of too much nitrogen in the water. Most often this is the result of using algae bloomsynthetic fertilizers on our lawns that then migrate into ponds and streams. By installing a buffer strip, the excess nitrogen will be absorbed by the plants along the water’s edge. Over time, algae blooms will begin to appear less frequent and there will be an increase in water clarity. I once worked for a client that had a large fish pond on his property that was totally lined with rocks and lawn, no buffer strips at all. He spent hundreds of dollars on chemicals each year to stop algae from forming in his pond, and when that didn’t work he had me take a paddle boat out into the pond and literally rake the algae out of the water. His lack of understanding ended up costing him time, money, and needlessly added more chemicals into the environment. Instead of addressing the cause, he only addressed the symptoms. 

What Kind of Plant Material to Use?

Choosing plant material for your buffer strip will depend on the amount of area available around the water feature. The more space available, the bigger the plants can be. Tall grasses, such as the varieties found in our pasture grass seed blends, are the best choice because of their dense, deep-growing root systems. These grasses can also be mixed with wildflower blends, providing not only a functional buffer strip, but adding beauty to the landscape as well. 

Buffer strips along water features provide one of the best defenses against water pollution. Not only do they provide an important filtering effect, but they can take an otherwise boring shoreline and turn it into a thriving garden. It’s important to look at the big picture when making choices regarding landscape maintenance. Every action we make has a reaction, even if we can’t see it. The water-cycle is one of nature’s most complex and important systems. Its health is our health. Its sickness is our sickness. Its life, our life.

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